IndyCar gambles on Las Vegas

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As promised, IndyCar boss Randy Bernard has divested his series of any International Speedway Corporation (ISC) races. Bernard announced IndyCar’s 2011 calendar last Friday, and the series has axed its four ISC races at the Kansas, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami oval tracks and the Watkins Glen road course. ISC is NASCAR’s publicly traded track-owning corporation and, despite its claims otherwise, it has never seriously promoted its IndyCar races, which have limped along with weak to middling crowds. ISC has staged 66 IndyCar races at a variety of its tracks over the past 12 years, but they have always played a very poor second fiddle to its NASCAR events.

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Bernard has replaced IndyCar’s four ISC races with two tracks – the New Hampshire and Las Vegas Motor Speedways – owned by ISC’s primary rival Bruton Smith’s (below) SMI group. Bernard is also reviving the independently owned Milwaukee Mile and adding a new street race in Baltimore. Milwaukee will run on June 19, New Hampshire on August 14, Baltimore on September 4 and Las Vegas will become IndyCar’s new season-closer in mid-October.

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Las Vegas was the only 2011 race not to be formally confirmed last week as Bernard and track owner Smith prepare for an individual announcement about IndyCar’s return to the high-banked 1.5-mile superspeedway. The pair hope to promote a weekend double-header, with a street race in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday and the oval race on Sunday. The city will also host IndyCar’s championship banquet, probably scheduled on the evening after the hoped-for double-header.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway promoted IRL races from 1996-2000 without much success, and then experimented equally unsuccessfully with Champ Car from 2004-06. So it will be interesting to see if the new initiative can turn the corner for Indycar racing in America’s legendary ‘sin city’.

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The rest of the IndyCar calendar remains largely unchanged, although this year’s season-opening street race in São Paulo moves to a May 1 date and will be round four in next year’s series. The existing St Petersburg street race will be next year’s season-opener on March 27. Other changes include two sprint races at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway on the night of June 11, rather than the traditional single 550K race.

Despite unifying with the dying Champ Car series two years ago, ticket sales and TV ratings for most IndyCar races have continued in steady decline. Bernard’s hope is that the myriad of changes he’s begun to bring to the table will result in a much-needed boost for his struggling series.

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